Boxing has a tendency to over-promote the significance of its fights but for Anthony Joshua the magnitude of Saturday’s bout in Saudi Arabia can truly be described as career-defining.
The Briton will step into the ring to face Andy Ruiz Jr knowing that defeat will likely end his hopes of unifying the heavyweight division and leave him cast aside, another “what if” of British boxing.
Victory, however, would make him a two-time world champion and put a huge bout with Deontay Wilder next year back on the map.
“It’s amazing how life works out,” Joshua’s promoter, Matchroom Sport supremo Eddie Hearn, told City A.M. at the stable’s annual fight night at the Monte Carlo Casino last weekend.
“Six months ago, everyone was saying the dream’s over. Now it’s the biggest fight of the year – of the decade – and the biggest payday of AJ’s career.”
Where it went wrong for AJ
Joshua lost the WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO heavyweight belts to Ruiz at Madison Square Garden, New York, in June, having originally been scheduled to fight Jarrel Miller, who was banned in the build up for a doping violation.
Up stepped Ruiz with three weeks’ notice and an unathletic build. His seventh-round knockout shook the boxing world and ended Joshua’s undefeated reign, although the real damage had been done in the third round when Joshua went for glory himself.
“Wilder knocked out Breazeale [two weeks earlier] and Joshua definitely felt he needed to produce a grandstand finish in America,” says Hearn.
“It was impossible to focus on Ruiz because no one took him seriously: not the media, not the fans. He still wanted to win, he still trained hard, but he was just thinking ‘knock him out, look sensational, and then see if we can get the Wilder fight’.”
This time around Joshua will not underestimate the 6ft Mexican who stole his crown and has geared his training more towards technique than strength and conditioning.
Having just had “one or two” sparring partners in the short build-up for Ruiz – it was “very difficult to get a 6ft chubby guy with speed”, Hearn says – this time Joshua has had eight people in for the whole camp.
“I’m guessing he’s deliberately done this, but it’s a carbon copy of the Klitschko camp,” says the promoter, referencing Joshua’s watershed 2017 victory. “In a proper gym, with eight or nine sparring partners, using three of four over 12 or 15 rounds.”
Both Joshua and Hearn dismissed a series of explanations for the loss to Ruiz, with Hearn suggesting his fighter’s “head and heart” were not in the right place and that the short notice hindered planning.
“He’s always been a student of the game, but he’s an overthinker and when you haven’t planned correctly, he’s the kind of person where that would unravel and you may have seen that in the first fight,” Hearn says.
“He wasn’t in the frame of mind to solve that problem, whereas he’s very regimental and if you tell him this is how you beat Ruiz, he’s good at carrying out a game plan.”
Despite being 30, Joshua has only had 23 professional fights and 41 amateur fights, and is still “having to learn under the most pressured environment”, Hearn adds.
His 24th pro fight is set to be crucial to the trajectory his career takes, but regardless of the outcome, it will also be his biggest payday to date by virtue of its location, a purpose-built 15,000-seater outdoor arena on the outskirts of Riyadh.
The original plan had been to fight in Cardiff, with Joshua accepting a 40 per cent pay cut on an American offer. But a reported £83m offer from Saudi Arabia blew both out of the water.
That has brought about its own issues, with questions over the country’s human rights record and Amnesty International last week accusing the regime of trying to “sportswash” its image.
Still, around 4,000 British fans are expected to make the journey, including expats from Dubai and around 2,500 people from the UK.
Hearn has defended the decision to host the event there, pointing out the presence of sporting events such as Formula E and the PGA Tour, as well as brands like Gucci and Starbucks.
“You’ve got a fiduciary duty to your client to stage the event there,” Hearn says. “What are you going to do? Present the numbers to your fighter and they go, ‘right, let’s go’, and you say, ‘I’m not comfortable with this, so I’m not going to be promoting this fight’. They’d go, ‘alright then, f*** off, see you later’.
“No one has a right to tell a fighter in a sport like this where they can and can’t fight for money. It was exactly the same with [Muhammad Ali fights] the Rumble in the Jungle and the rulership of Congo at the time, and the Thrilla in Manila and [Philippines president] Ferdinand Marcos.”
The Essex-born promoter also defended a price increase from £19.95 to £24.95 to watch the fight on Sky Sports’ pay-per-view Box Office platform and insisted it was a one-off, “outside of something like a Joshua-Wilder fight”.
“Contrary to people thinking we own Sky, DAZN, we don’t set the price,” says Hearn, who still expects UK pay-per-view records to be broken.
“The first bell is at 9pm, which is a great time, and it’s coming off the back of the Manchester [football] derby, so you’ve got that huge audience ready to migrate straight over to the AJ fight. It couldn’t have worked out better. Now he’s just got to win.”